- The Spanish Flu and the Sanitary Dictatorship: Mexico’S Response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic
The influenza of 1918, the disastrous global pandemic known to many as the Spanish Flu, could not have come at a worse time for Mexico. The nation was eight years into its decade-long revolutionary struggle, a conflict that claimed the lives of well over a million citizens.1 Of those lost, several hundred thousand perished due to the influenza alone, usually from secondary complications such as pneumonia or bronchitis. Along with exposure, famine, and a myriad of other wartime ailments, the 1918 flu ranked as one of the leading causes of death in the Revolution, far surpassing combat casualties.
The onset of the flu, as it was chronicled in daily newspapers, was sudden and horrifying. At first, it traveled overland on the rails, striking towns like Ciudad Juárez that sat along the permeable US-Mexican border before spreading throughout the country’s vast north.2 The contagion gained strength as it arrived on incoming ships docking at the Atlantic seaports of Tampico and Veracruz.3 From there, it reached every region of the country—the fertile Bajío, the extreme south, and eventually Mexico City.
In a matter of days in early October, stories of whole families falling victim, then entire populations of peasants, miners, and urban dwellers, began to appear daily [End Page 443] in long articles. Within a few weeks, the severity of the epidemic was clear: people were perishing, often by the dozens, sometimes by the hundreds, across the republic.4 In cities, piles of bodies decomposing in the midday sun, with blood coming out of their eyes and ears, created an arresting sight and an even worse stench as they awaited their departure to mass graves dug by prison inmates.5 In the countryside, hacienda owners allowed burials and established makeshift lazarettos (isolation chambers) to quarantine sick workers.6 Whole sectors of the economy faltered. Coahuila’s coal mining zones collapsed, as did petroleum production in Veracruz.7 Without coal and oil, transportation ground to a halt.8 Workers, unable to pay rents, were forced into the streets.9 By late October, the press was reporting 1,500 to 2,000 deaths per day.10
Through October and November, readers encountered increasingly bizarre stories in the print media. One, for instance, told of a pair of Red Cross nurses claiming to bring an inoculation serum to El Paso, Texas, which had been gripped by the flu. The two were apprehended upon crossing the border on a train coming in from Juárez after a fellow passenger reported suspicious activity. Upon their arrest, police discovered that the two women were in fact disguised German men seeking to infiltrate nearby Fort Bliss.11 In another example, passengers on the Tampico-San Luis Potosí line witnessed a grotesque scene. As the train chugged up a range of mountains, a visibly distressed mother inside opened the window and pitched one of her two babies into a deep ravine. Wailing and trying to comfort the remaining child, the mother, when confronted by another passenger, simply looked up and said, “It was dead.” What seemed a callous, criminal act was really an act of desperation. In the next car, an artisan, feverish and doubled over, had died in his seat.12
Such stories are hard to verify and perhaps even harder to believe. In all likelihood, they were often entirely fictional. Nevertheless, they suggest the extent to which fear of the flu (or the fear of Germans using Mexico to stage an invasion of the United States during World War I, a fear no doubt amplified by the discovery [End Page 444] of the Zimmermann telegram the previous year) became the subject of macabre popular lore, and the degree to which mainstream print media teetered between faithful reporting and gratuitous sensationalism.
The purpose of this article is to move beyond such sensational storytelling, and past a primary focus on the statistical implications of the disease, and instead to examine the national response to the epidemic through the experiences of the major stakeholders in that process. Despite the devastation wrought by...